The North Carolina Democratic Party wants to question the state Republican Party's executive director under oath to find out what he knew and any communications he had with Republican legislative leaders about a law canceling judicial primaries this year.
Dallas Woodhouse, the GOP executive director, called a news conference on Thursday to decry the subpoena ordering him to answer questions from attorneys representing the Democratic Party.
"This is an unprecedented overreach that could have very dangerous consequences to our political system and our ability to deliver political debate to the people of North Carolina," Woodhouse said with two Republican candidates for office sitting beside him at the party headquarters.
At his news conference, Woodhouse failed to mention that Republican lawmakers had subpoenaed the North Carolina Democratic Party executive director as part of the case, too. The legislative leaders are also seeking records related to how Democrats endorse judicial candidates and decide how much to spend on those campaigns, as well as their methods for keeping track of voters in their party.
"There is a huge difference between them," Woodhouse said later, noting that Democrats are a party to the suit and the Republican Party is not. "Dragging us into this is a chilling effect."
The state Democratic Party sued Republican legislative leaders late last year, challenging an October law that canceled primary elections for all judicial races in 2018. All judges races will be partisan this year.
Democrats contend that doing away with primaries sets up a possibility of having many candidates on the ballot in November, robbing the party of being able to put forward its candidate of choice.
Democrats argue the surprise move last year to do away with judicial primaries is part of a multi-layered plan to swing the courts to the political right. Republicans have said they canceled them while studying redistricting plans and a possible move to an appointment of judges that takes voters out of the mix.
The Republican Party is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, so Woodhouse questioned why the Democratic Party was interested in any emails, texts, tweets or documents he had sent to or received from Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Sen. Ralph Hise, Rep. David Lewis and Rep. Justin Burr related to the law eliminating the primaries.
The subpoena also seeks "all documents and drafts of documents relating to any NCGOP resolution regarding the elimination of judicial primaries in 2018."
"This is designed to cripple the North Carolina Republican Party's ability to conduct operations going into the fall elections and it threatens political parties' ability to operate in the future," Woodhouse said. "Seeking our documents and forcing us to testify in this manner is cover for the Democrats to go on an unlimited fishing expedition into our operations."
Tom Stark, the Chapel Hill lawyer representing Woodhouse, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he had not tried to quash the subpoena, but was exploring the idea. Stark also had consulted with attorneys representing the Republican lawmakers named in the lawsuit.
The deposition is set for Monday and Woodhouse invited reporters to sit in on the proceedings with him.
Both Stark and Woodhouse described the Republican Party information as similar to "trade secrets" that should not have to be disclosed to the opposition party. But Stark said if Woodhouse has to turn over documents, there might be disappointment about how few there are.
"I think he regularly purges everything," Stark said. "I don't think he keeps emails."
Edwin Speas, a Raleigh attorney representing the Democrats, said Thursday that the request was narrowly tailored to questions about the judicial primary law.
"This is not some fishing expedition," Speas said.
Speas also noted that attorneys for Republican lawmakers had subpoenaed Wayne Goodwin, the Democratic Party's executive director, to respond to questions under oath before the June 7 trial in federal court.
"We want him to answer questions about this," Speas said.
Goodwin was traveling on Thursday and not immediately available for comment, but Robert Howard, the Democratic Party spokesman, questioned Woodhouse's reluctance to provide information.
"Our lawsuit is about protecting North Carolinians’ right to choose their own judges.," Howard said. "Reports suggest that after rigging our judicial elections, the Republican Party is now trying to circumvent that law. The subpoena is narrowly-focused to this one, specific law, and NCDP leaders are being deposed as well. Dallas and the NC GOP have been repeatedly caught trying to rig our elections and suppress the vote. What’s he trying to hide here?”
Stark said apples-to-apples comparisons could not be made between the orders to question Woodhouse and Goodwin under oath.
The Democrats brought the lawsuit, Stark said, and the North Carolina Republican Party is not named in the case.
"In this particular case, the party is not driving this bus at all," Stark said.